Colombian jeweller embraces Te Ao Māori through pounamu

By Marena Mane

Indigenous Columbian jeweller Ernesto Ovalle says a video that went viral on Facebook early this week, showing a person destroying a pounamu taonga,  tore him apart.

“It was painful to watch. Even if it's not my own culture and it's not my stone, I have such respect for you, people, for tangata whenua, for the pounamu, for the resource.” 

Ernesto Ovalle is descended from a long line of traditional jewellers and comes from South America's oldest indigenous tribe, the Muisca tribe in central Colombia, which is now extinct due to Spanish colonialism.

Ovalle immigrated to Aotearoa in the late 1990s, where he was first introduced to pounamu through one of his mentors, Master Carver Chaz Doherty of Ngāi Tūhoe.

He then set off on a mission to become a pounamu carver and in 2001 established his own pounamu jewellery studio called Oro Negro on Karangahape Road in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Embracing his whakapapa

His love for pounamu drew him into Te Ao Māori and through it he learned more about his own whakapapa.

“Through the lessons and through the sharing of Chaz, they deeply go in my whakapapa (genealogy) and I start learning and embracing my own whakapapa," Ovalle says.

"I'm still Colombian, I'm still part of the Muisca but the contact with tangata whenua, my own whakapapa and that was absolutely beautiful, a life-changing experience,” he says.

Ovalle has participated in Ngāi Tahu's pounamu authentication scheme and only buys pounamu from the iwi. Its preference is that taonga should not be wasted and carvers should do their best to restore broken pieces, which Ovalle took to heart.

Privilege with responsibilites

“I carve pounamu because I love the stone. I fell in love with the stone at the first time I saw it.” 

“I learned a little bit of Te Reo. Laying down the protocols is crucial and working under the guidance of Ngāi Tahu Poutini.”

“I think it's crucial because it's a big responsibility to hold such a taonga, in particular to doing it right and doing it properly and respecting all the protocols.”

“The privilege comes with a lot of responsibilities and I've been taking it seriously and to see something like the video where the taonga was destroyed, it's quite devastating for my eyes because I know how much it takes to produce taonga.”

Before he restores taonga, Ovalle calls on his own ancestors with a karakia to guide him through the process. He believes broken pieces have their own power and can always be restored.

“If you have your taonga to restore or if you want to put a new cord by all means … please come along and meet us here on K Rd. Kia ora.”